Questions from the pool of Bethesda

At Grace Church every Sunday we spend time studying the Bible together. We have people from all over the world and in all different stages of their faith journey. Our goal is to help people feel confident in reading their Bibles, feeling confident to ask questions of the Bible and how to find good answers. Every week (if I remember) I’ll share some of those questions and answers.

John 5:1-15 is a well-known story, one woman in the group recalled how she felt familiar with the story from Sunday School but reading it again now several questions cropped up:

  1. What was special about the pool of Bethesda? (Jn 5:2)
  2. Why was picking up his mat a problem? (Jn 5:9-12)
  3. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”? (Jn 5:14)

The first question helps us locate the story and contrasts the real healing offered by Jesus with the legend of the pool. The second question helps us understand some of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders and the third question asks great questions about the character of God, the seriousness of sin and the power of the Gospel.

The pool of Bethesda

Jerusalem had numbers of public pools throughout the city, John records another healing at another pool, the pool of Siloam in John 9:1-41. The pool of Bethesda was long thought to have never existed until it was discovered in the 19th century, although it took some time for archaeologists to correctly identify the site. A legend had grown around the pool that angels would come and stir the waters, whoever was first into the pool would be healed. Think Lourdes. This legend is included in some manuscripts of John’s gospel but not all, so you may notice that depending on your translation that Jn 5:4 only exists as a footnote. Whatever the reason, the disabled man certainly believed he needed to get into the water to be healed (Jn 5:7) and so did a lot of other people (Jn 5:3).

Jesus however speaks and the man is made well. The word of Jesus in this instance is enough, no record of faith or response. Just Jesus having compassion on a man who had been disabled 38 years.

The sabbath and mat carrying

To modern non-Jewish ears the idea that picking up your mat would be considered sinful is a strange idea indeed but it perfectly illustrates Jesus challenge to the religious leaders that, ‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath’ (Mk 2:27). Mankind has often struggled with both the ambiguity and clarity of the Bible. Love your neighbour seems quite easy to grasp until you ask, ‘who is my neighbour?’ (Lk 10:29), so the command to rest and do no work on the Sabbath is pretty clear (Ex 20:10) but then you ask, ‘what is work?’

Over the years the religious leaders had attempted to answer that question and had come up with 39 different activities that were banned on the Sabbath that included the carrying of an object from one place to the next. Intended to curtail business and industry it was now curbing even bearing of the most basic fundamental item, a mat.

There are seven recorded healings that Jesus performed on the Sabbath and several of them lead to conflict and Jesus seems to have encouraged this one, not only by healing on the Sabbath but then instructed the man to pick up his mat. I’m confident Jesus knew this would get a reaction. The religious leaders are becoming experts in missing the point – they miss the big picture of God’s coming kingdom, instead of a restored person they see a broken rule. Jesus persistently pushes them to see that man’s rules are not to be an obstacle to the advance of His kingdom. We should be careful before we cast our stones of judgment and just ask, whether we make the same mistake?

‘Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you’

Certainly on first reading, several in our group read it as Jesus threatening the man (Jn 5:14) but was that actually the case? There are a number of possibilities:

  • God would judge the man for sin by sending him a new sickness that was worse than being crippled for 38 years
  • Jesus had caught the man doing something genuinely unlawful on the Sabbath and was warning him
  • Sin is so serious that it is worse even than the intense physical sufferings of sickness

A friend of mine lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident some fourteen years ago and so moves around in his wheelchair. I’d never talked about Jesus healing the lame, the paralyzed and crippled with someone who daily lived without the use of their legs and I was curious what he thought about it. His answer was telling; my biggest problem he said, was not that he sat in a wheelchair but that his heart was so messed up that he was wrecking his life. Sin was his greatest problem.

Sin is worse than sickness because it is more infectious, we can catch other people up in our sin easier than we can give them our cold. Sin not only spreads but it can be passed on and the sins of one generation are repeated in the next. The abused becomes the abuser. Sin is also harder to cure, it’s infection rate is almost equal to the number of people who have ever lived, save one. Sin is worse in its virulence, its extent, its power and it’s consequences.

The wages of sin is death, sin cuts us off from the source of life, it isolates us from the holiness and goodness of God and as a result we are perishing. This eternal separation is worse.

Jesus had asked the man if he wanted to be well (Jn 5:6) and later found that he was indeed well (Jn 5:14). Jesus had healed the body but now he wanted to deal with the man’s soul. His message to the man was Jesus’ consistent message: ‘Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand’.

We live in an age where for many this life is all there is, nothing is worse than physical suffering which is why for many assisted dying makes perfect sense, but if this life is not all there is we should pay as much attention to the state and health of our souls as we do to the state and health of our bodies.

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